Cooking with Alex at Cal Compte, in the Heart of the Priorat

A 50-minute flight from Bordeaux to Barcelona, followed by a 1.5-hour train ride down the Costa Daurada to Reus, and I’m greeted at the train station by Alex Frisch, Resident Chef of Cal Compte guesthouse in Torroja. He’s here as every Tuesday to visit the local market, chat with the vendors and do some shopping. As we enter the Mercat Central, he explains what he’s looking for – fresh vegetables for a pasta sauce for this week’s staff meal, some good local meat for a dinner with clients. He’ll also be handing out invitations to a tasting, a chance for local food artisans to showcase their products alongside the fantastic wines of Terroir al Limit.

First stop, a cheese and charcuterie lady who seems overjoyed to see the young chef. Her cheese case abounds with Catalan formatges of goat, sheep and cow and mixtures of the three. There’s an aged goat’s milk Garrotxa with its grey-mold-dusted rind and fresh, juicy mató to drizzle with honey. To the left is a collection of hams, cold cuts, sausages dry-cured fuets coated in herbs, mild or spicy llonganissa, botifarra blanca (fresh white sausage made with egg), botifarra negra (fresh black sausage made with blood). She offers us quite a generous sample of the dry-cured llonganissa, whose tight natural casing offers a wonderful snap, simply flavored with pork and herbs. We take some of those and a selection of cheeses.

Next comes fruits and veg, and Alex knows just where to go. While he goes around squeezing and smelling the fruit, carefully choosing his victims, two school-children come up to me and ask me something in Catalan. They’re from a local school on a field trip to the market to learn about where their food comes from. I recognize the image of a red bell pepper on their worksheets and point them in the direction of some particularly fresh peps I’ve just seen nearby. After some serious market-gossip, to which Alex seems to be entirely privy, we move on to chicken. Next, we hit an organic market for some grains and an interior goods shop to pick up the long white candles of which Alex has ordered a case. These are for his ever-changing centerpieces, which showcase bottles of Terroir al Limit and whatever flowers are in season.

On the twisting-and-turning drive back to Cal Compte we have a chance to discuss Alex’s new life as a resident of the tiny village of Torroja. Originally from Hanover, Germany, the young chef has embraced a more peaceful life in the mountains of Priorat. In the charming rustic kitchen of the guesthouse, he enjoys free reign to create whatever menus best suit his mood or the season. His choice of ingredients? Fresh goods from the markets of nearby Reus seasoned with locally foraged mountain herbs. The super sunny, very dry, high altitude terroir of Priorat concentrates the flavors in whatever manages to grow up there – most notably the grape vine, but also the almond and olive trees (often found between vine rows), along with the rosemary, sage, thyme and anis (usually growing at the edge of the vineyards). There’s whispers around Cal Compte of wild asparagus stalks popping up here and there, though their natural camouflage makes these notoriously difficult to find.

We arrive to the kitchen and get started on one of Alex’s specialties, a wine bread made from scratch using a local Priorat red. He activates his yeast in a mixture of water and honey, placing this in the oven to warm up a bit, and points out the “zizzing” noise the yeast makes once it’s awake. Meanwhile, he sifts dry ingredients into a large bowl and pours in almost a full bottle of local wine, taking care to kneed that in before adding the yeast, lest the alcohol in the wine kill the little guys. We leave the ball of dough to breathe for some time, until it has risen to around twice its original size. Alex sprinkles the surface with coarse salt and adds a drizzle of Caragols, Terroir al Limit’s own extra virgin olive oil from olives grown on the property. And then, into the oven. Once the bread cools, I try a slice with a bit more of the same oil. Its crunchy, reptilian crust gives way to a fluffy, soft interior dyed a darker shade by the wine inside. For the rest of the afternoon, Alex stays in the kitchen, finishing up his luxurious pasta sauce for tomorrow’s staff meal, and experimenting with a new dessert that combines his decadent chocolate ganache squares with deep fried black olives.

The next morning, I wake up in the Poboleda guestroom of Cal Compte, pushing open the window to let in the fresh mountain air. It always takes my city-and-screen-damaged eyes some time to re-focus, much like a camera, when confronted by the sheer depth of the Priorat landscape. Varying layers of the centuries-old stone architecture around me frame a mess of hills and valleys, steeply terraced slopes in a wide array of facings, land covered in vine rows or patches of pine forest, dark spots on the landscapes formed by the occasional cloud floating above. And in the distance, the majestic Montsant range reigns over all, its rocky foothills home to villages built in stone, and the ruins of the Carthusian monastery echoing Priorat’s ancient winemaking past. It is up in these foothills, on plateaus placed at soaring altitudes of 800 meters that we find Terroir al Limit’s newest project, a collection of parcels planted with Grenache. This stunning landcapes serves as the screensaver of my office computer back home. And as I breathe it all in, the old-money chateaux, the flat, neatly manicured vineyards, the oak-forward blends of multi-varietal red, the impossibly rainy and gray winters of Bordeaux fade to give way to sunshine and clear skies above a chaos of wild slopes, old vines of Garnatxa and Carinena growing amidst almond trees and grasses, stretching their roots deep into soils of llicorella schist.

On the spacious, sunny terrace of Cal Compte, breakfast awaits: a bowl of yogurt topped with ripe pear, honey and mint freshly plucked from the herb garden outside.The bowl’s wide brim is decorated in an array of toppings to add at one’s will. I push them all in and mix them up for crunch, dried apricots and cranberries, toasted granola, sunflower and poppy seeds all glued together by the yogurt and sticky honey. Alex also brings out a pot of fresh coffee. I plug my laptop in and get ready to work, but end up pushing it aside. I refill my cup and clear my thoughts, choosing to take in the view instead.

But eventually work finds where I’m hiding, and the next thing I know it’s the evening. The stone corridors of Cal Compte echo with the sound of guests, here to enjoy a tasting of Terroir al Limit’s range with Dominik Hubert, followed by dinner prepared by Alex, paired with a collection of wines brought over. The dining room is dimly lit with candles, dripping white wax down the neck of bottles enjoyed long ago. It starts with an entree of mussels, minimally seasoned and served in bamboo steamers. A glass of Terra de Cuques is the perfect accompaniment, though I follow the dish with a splash of Pedra de Guix, a dense and rich, beautifully mineral blend of old vine Pedro Ximenez, Macabeo and White Grenache. Standing up to this beefy white is the fish course, a sea bass served whole with a delightfully crunchy endive and thinly sliced radish salad on the side. And for the final main, thin slices of super-tender bone-in Basque ribeye, aged around 5 weeks, served on a bed of roasted carrots and pearl onions, which come glazed in a mix of balsamic and honey. Fantastic products, wonderfully executed and absolutely perfect with a somewhat informal vertical of three Manyes vintages, one of Terroir al Limit’s Grand Cru level wines, made exclusively from high-altitude, old-vine Grenache. A combination that brings me goosebumps to remember.

Dinner comes to a finish with a beautiful cheeseboard, featuring an array of mild to funky, soft to hard cheeses. My favorites were those of Sant Gil d’Albio: little balls of creamy goat’s milk cheese and a super pungent, even a bit spicy, cheese spread made of crumbled goat’s milk cheese that has been left to age and ripen. To balance out all the wild pizzazz of these cheeses were some toasted hazelnuts and pears soaked in wine. And to pair: pretty much whichever wine we each had most enjoyed throughout the meal, which for me – no doubt – was (and has always been) Terroir al Limit’s Arbossar, a Premier Cru level single-varietal Carignan, matured in cement with not a hint of oak.

The next morning, I wake up early for an active day around the region. On the agenda is a tour of Mas del Botó in DO Tarragona, and a visit to Cellers de Scala Dei to taste their Sant Antoni in oak and Mas Deu in cement, before making a quick stop in Sitges and returning for the evening to Barcelona. As I pack up my suitcase and close the bedroom windows, I’m already planning my next trip back to Cal Compte, a home in the steep streets of Torroja, in the heart of the Priorat.

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